Sarah Munoru ’23 Reads into the Role of Race in Greco-Roman Antiquity

By Rebecca Goldfine
When Sarah Munoru ’23 first read Aithiopika, a work of fiction by Heliodorus of Emesa written around 300 CE, she was immediately drawn in. The page-turning adventure features pirates, prophecies, and a great love story.

Sarah Munoru ’23 with her texts. Her advisor Associate Professor of Classics Robert Sobak was the first to introduce her to Aithiopika, knowing she was interested in the role of race in antiquity. As a Mellon Mays fellow, she decided to make the narrative central to her independent research project. “This is how the idea came into view, and I ran with it,” she said.

The plot follows the journey of young lovers who travel from their home country of Greece to Ethiopia, overcoming obstacles and dangers along the way as they strive to be reunited with the woman’s long-lost mother.

The story piqued Munoru’s curiosity for several reasons, beyond it being a good read. “It is an odyssey-slash-love story and it focuses on this couple's trials and tribulations in Egypt and Ethiopia, which is interesting because a lot of Greek odyssey stories focus on the Mediterranean or Asia or more northern areas,” she said.

This summer, Munoru received a Surdna Foundation Undergraduate Research Fellowship from Bowdoin to do a close read of Aithiopika and its two major, yet problematic, translations, written centuries apart in 1569 and in the late 1980s. Along with doing background historical research, she is examining how Aithiopika’s characters, original text, and translations open a window into race in fourth-century Greece.

This work, which she launched her sophomore year as a Mellon Mays fellow, will help her as she writes a new translation of Aithiopika for her senior-year honors project. “My goal is to try to make the most objective translation at the end of the day,” she said. She argues that current translations are beset by the translators’ modern-day preconceptions of race.

“Looking at the translators' texts and notes, it is interesting to see how they go about explaining race and their word choices,” she continued. “Race and racism, the construct of those in antiquity is not what we think of today, so it is difficult to translate a story when you don't have the proper lens to look through.”

One of the most intriguing details for Munoru is that Aithiopika's heroine, Charikleia, is an albino Ethiopian princess, an unusual narrative choice. (The intricate plot of Aithiopika stems from the abandonment of infant Charikleia by her mother, the queen of Ethiopia, who fears her “gleaming white” newborn will be seen as a sign of infidelity to her husband.)

“I am interested in studying how albinism was received and interpreted in antiquity,” Munoru explained, “and also, as the story is focused on a continent of people of color, to see how Greek individuals perceived race in that time: What were their words of description? Was it central to how they perceived someone? What was the importance of race back then?”

Munoru pinpoints the origin of her love of Classics to studying Latin at The Linsly School, a boarding school in West Virginia (she grew up in New Jersey). But she wasn’t sure she’d major in Classics in college (actually double major—she’s also a biology major) until she took a Latin class at Bowdoin.

“When I came to Bowdoin, I was an overwhelmed first-year, and I was like, ‘I don't know what to do with myself, why don't I take one Latin class to have some sense of familiarity?’” She hasn’t stopped there. She started learning ancient Greek in the spring semester of her first year.

She’s drawn to Classics for many reasons, but one of them is that she’d like to make the unending treasure of myths, epic tales, histories, plays, and other works available to more people. “There’s so much we can learn from Greek texts,” she said. “A lot of the same tropes, plots, and narratives all continue today in the movies we watch and in our TV shows. It is so intertwined with the fabric of modern society.”

But Classics tends to be relegated to the privileged, she pointed out. She’s also concerned by the trend of alt-right extremist groups appropriating aspects of Greek and Roman cultures to justify their white supremacy teachings. “The current gap in literature exploring race within antiquity and its implications on contemporary issues allows white-dominating versions of antiquity to continue to influence modernity,” she said.

“It's a study that just needs to be changed,” she added. “I get that Latin and Greek are ‘dead’ languages, but they are still mostly taught in private schools, which reinforces that trend of the Classics being an elitist area that is not accessible to people of all backgrounds. I would like to change that.”